Callaghan: Big issue in charter isn’t strong mayor but strong council

Staff WriterMay 15, 2014 

The committee of Tacoma residents who spent four months examining city government did yeoman’s work, by most accounts.

Actually, given that one of their recommendations is to rid the city’s primary governing document of gender-specific language, let’s make that yeoperson’s work.

The point of the process was to see what changes, if any, should be made to the city’s charter. Since 1952, Tacoma has used a council-manager form of government in which an elected council hires a professional city manager as chief executive.

Nine of the 15 committee members think the City Council should ask voters to change to what they call a mayor-council-chief administrative officer form of government. Don’t call it strong mayor, though. The majority argues that because the CAO is also a professional manager who would be appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the council, that person will be responsive to both.

It is comforting that regardless of who is elected mayor under the plan, there will always be someone around who knows how to run a city. But once the person is confirmed, he or she works for the mayor and can be fired by the mayor. That means the mayor gets his or her calls returned a lot quicker than the council members do.

So it still looks like a strong mayor to me. Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, for example, is a strong mayor. And just because future Tacoma mayors — should the charter be amended — would have to run their administrative deputy past the council wouldn’t make them significantly less strong.

But, we quibble. I’m not sure I have enough breath to say mayor-council-chief administrative officer every time, and I don’t think it is accurate to describe it without the words “strong” and “mayor” in there somewhere, preferably in sequence. In the spirit of compromise, though, I am willing to call the proposal a “modified strong mayor.”

What might be the bigger problem with the proposal is that a strong mayor really needs to be coupled with a strong council. Currently, the elected council chooses a city manager who is prohibited by practice and ethics from meddling in local politics. Yet an elected strong mayor would be expected to meddle in, and perhaps even dominate, local politics.

That’s a lot of power and influence to put into one person, and that power must be checked by a council with the oomph to do battle if necessary. The review committee understands this but dances around the edges of saying so. It reduces the council size from nine to seven and gives it staff to provide information and advice — especially on the budget — independent from the mayor’s staff.

And while the committee envisions a council that works full time like the Seattle City Council, the proposal doesn’t say that. Instead, it would create a salary commission to decide how much the new council would be paid, knowing that a full-time salary begets a full-time council.

Why not just say that? The answer could be politics, not policy. Voters might not support creating eight new full-time political jobs (a mayor and seven council members). While it might not be much given the size of city budgets, someone is sure to ask how many potholes could be filled with that money.

And the worst-case result would be for voters to approve the strong mayor amendment but leave the council as it is — nine part-timers dependent on the newly empowered executive for all research and budget information.

Being vague allows proponents to avoid — or try to avoid — a conversation about the increased cost to taxpayers of adding all those full-time salaries and additional council staff.

The council could put the committee’s majority plan on the fall ballot. Or it could place one of the minority proposals that tinker with the current council-manager form. Or it could do nothing.

The first indication of council intent will come during Tuesday’s committee of the whole meeting at city hall. Given the closeness of the review committee voting and a process that was tortured and sometimes embarrassing, the do-nothing course of action seems increasingly likely.

Peter Callaghan: 253-597-8657 peter.callaghan@ @CallaghanPeter

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